I’m at home in Mount Druitt channel surfing with my brother, Sione. We land on ABC and Jonah from Tonga is airing. Jonah Takalua, a fictional Pasifika boy who is played by a white man in brown-face, gets up in front of his “Special Ed” class full of Fob boys and begins to read from a tattered notebook, curly black hair falling into his eyes. "Becuz yew r good… at brekdahncing… now I can read… good."
Sione snatches the remote from my hand and turns off the TV. He looks at me with the eyes of pulotu and says, ‘I can f---ing read.’
I was 12 and in Year 7 when Chris Lilley’s mockumentary Summer Heights High aired on ABC for the first time. A few weeks after, an Anglo-Australian classmate - who looked like Eminem - came to school in a tupenu whilst strumming on a ukulele. He told everyone he was an honorary Fob. When I tried to explain to him that he was pālangi, a white person, he just flicked back his blonde hair. "If Chris Lilley can do it, I can do it."
Lilley’s caricature of Pasifika people ties in with a long history of white people appropriating the skin of people of colour in art. The mainstream performance of black-face, yellow-face and brown-face started in the United States in 1789 as a form of theatrical makeup and racially stereotyped conduct. Award-winning Afro-Caribbean-Australian author Maxine Beneba Clarke writes that black-face was created when, "White performers liberally applied black greasepaint or shoe polish and used distorted dialogue, exaggerated accents and grotesque movements to caricature people of African descent" in the name of art.
In this historical context, black-face, much like yellow-face and brown-face, in which white people use props and make-up to represent people from Indigenous, African, Arab, Asian, South Asian, South American and Pasifika backgrounds, is about power. It mocks people of colour while at the same time, by having white people play people of colour, removes access from these marginalised groups to achieve self-determination and self-representation through job opportunities and economic income.
In 2009, Hey Hey It’s Saturday aired a skit in which four performers in black-face mimicked The Jackson Five, with the Michael Jackson character in stark white face paint. Special guest judge on the night, Harry Connick Jnr., a famous white American singer, was so offended by the display that he gave the performers a zero and said, ‘If they turned up looking like that in the United States, it would be like, Hey Hey There’s No More Show!’
Australia is so backwards on this issue that even a rich white American male could call us out.
The question is not about whether white people are entitled to have an opinion on this issue, but rather, who is in a greater position to assess whether this issue is a problem
Who in Australia decides that black-face, yellow-face and brown-face are a problem? In 2016, The Project’s Steve Price argued with reporter of Indigenous descent Allan Clarke over an incident of black-face: a white team member of The Opals attended a dress-up party as Kanye West, and as part of her ‘costume’ she painted her face black.
In the interview, Clarke argued that black-face is always racist and offensive to Indigenous people. In response, Price told Clarke that he was "overreacting" and that although the player's black-face "may offend a few people ... she's not deliberately being racist". Next Price argued that just because he was white, it didn’t mean that he was not entitled to have an opinion on black-face. "So people of not-colour can't have an opinion?" he said to Clarke. "I don't think [her black-face] is racist."
However, the question is not about whether white people are entitled to have an opinion on this issue, but rather, who is in a greater position to assess whether this issue is a problem – the group committing the act or the group affected by it? As Clarke put it, "Let the people of colour define what’s racist. Let them define what’s offensive to them."
Chris Lilley’s 2011 program, Angry Boys, saw Lilley put on black-face for the character of S.mouse. S.mouse is a fictional African-American rapper from Calabasas, California who was put under house arrest after shitting in a police car. While white Australians like Rowen Dean of ABC Online described Lilley’s minstrel character as, "Eminem meets Ali G meets Snoop Dog", Angry Boys received US backlash from prominent hip hop artists such as Open Mike Eagle, who after watching the show said, ‘Hell yeah it’s offensive. Black-face is not the kind of thing that just becomes acceptable one day. I don’t give a damn how ‘meta’ this cat thinks he is, it doesn’t give him a pass to exploit the history of race relations for a cheap laugh."
In an interview with Fairfax Media, Lilley addressed the backlash Angry Boys received. "I think people who take things out of context might think that it crosses a line," he said. "Most people who see it get it and, once you're there in that world, it makes sense."
The portrayal of S.mouse again received backlash when Lilley posted to Instagram the song Squashed N---a, which is about a black child who is run over by a truck.
Lilley posted the song just days after a white man in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, was controversially found not guilty of manslaughter for running down 14-year old Indigenous boy, Elijah Doughty.
Whilst Lilley apologised for the post, saying it was not connected "in any way to current news stories" and that he was sorry for "any hurt caused by the misinterpretation", he did not seem to pick up the message about his work in general: our skin is not a costume.
It wasn’t just Americans who seemed to have a problem with Lilley’s work. Jonah from Tonga was permanently withdrawn from Māori TV in 2017 with New Zealand's minister for Pacific peoples, Alfred Ngaro, saying the series "perpetuates negative stereotypes". So, if Aotearoa and America get the message that coloured-face is never okay, why is white Australia still peddling this primitive, backwards, blatantly racist activity?
Watching Lilley’s brown face paint flake into his wrinkles as he sat in a cell with Aboriginal inmates made the side of my head feel like it was being grated
In 2007, 1.2 million Australians tuned into Summer Heights High. They tuned in again, albeit in lesser numbers, in 2014 for Jonah from Tonga. In one episode, Lilley’s Jonah Takalua finds himself in a youth detention centre after holding up a local bowling alley with a machete. Watching Lilley’s brown face paint flake into his wrinkles as he sat in a cell with Aboriginal inmates made the side of my head feel like it was being grated. To me, it seemed this is what white people thought of my father, my brothers and my uncles: criminals with speech impediments and unruly Afros.
It is racist and colonialist when white people use brown, black and Asian cultures for their own cultural and capitalist profit, and yet Australia rewards Lilley for this behaviour time and time again. This year, he was given a deal with Netflix to make a new 10-part series. Musicfeeds wrote that Lilley’s work is currently being filmed in Queensland and is expected to give the local economy a $6.35 million boost. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was "delighted to have enticed" Lilley for the economic and social gain the state will receive from his work.
On 27 May, Daily Mail Australia released images of the character Lilley will be playing in his new show. He appeared to be in his usual black-face make-up with an Afro wig and he was wearing an "African-inspired" dress. An Australian state might thank him for this kind of work, but I worry about all the white people, like my old classmate from high school, who will be given new reasons to mock people of colour while my brothers are reduced to racist stereotypes and my sisters are reduced to costumes.
White Australia needs to break from its racist and colonialist history with black-face, yellow-face and brown-face to repair the damage it has done to Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse communities throughout the nation.
It is time for Australia to boycott black-face, yellow-face and brown-face. It's time to stop giving Chris Lilley a free pass on this.
Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian from Mount Druitt. She is a Manager and Editor at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a Bachelor of Arts graduate from Western Sydney University.